dimanche 6 septembre 2009

Here we go again: another reply to "Subversive" Thinking

This I think will be the last installment of my “debate” with the owner of the blog called “Subversive Thinking” (ST). Quick summary: ST believes in the paranormal, I don’t. He was first outraged that I had the nerve to write a negative review of a book called Irreducible Mind, which argues that current neuroscience is entirely misguided because it cannot account for supernormal powers of the human mind, so he wrote some comments (later here) trying to explain why I am entirely misguided because I cannot account for supernormal powers of the human mind. Also, he doesn’t like my attitude at all, he thinks that irony, sarcasm and mockery should not be part of the discourse of a PhD student (and it got worse here). I responded basically saying that I think he is sanctimonious, self-righteous and altogether boring. Oh, and I also reduced to ashes each one of his “arguments”. But now, in his latest reply, he simply decided that I must be too stupid to understand his brilliance, so he gave up addressing any point of substantial interest. Briefly (or maybe not so briefly), here’s a list of the points I've made that ST doesn’t want to discuss:

- The “transmission” hypothesis is unwarranted because what some of the phenomena it claims to explain better than materialism have not been established as scientific facts at all, and all the rest fits just nice within the materialist “paradigm” (I use scare quotes because that word now belongs to the crackpot arsenal).

- Consciousness, spontaneous remission of cancer and the placebo effect are very bad examples of things that have been established as facts but have no scientific explanation yet. The comparison with some of the wildest contents of Irreducible Mind doesn’t hold.

- The “transmission” hypothesis doesn’t help understand what is actually known from neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (In fact, it’s probably the worst explanation to “explain” this huge set of data).

- Dualism per se is not an “explanation” at all for psychological modulations of bodily functions. Materialism, on the other hand, has no problem with that.

- Science works just fine, in fact incredibly fine, without alluding to anything paranormal.

- The “bundle of sticks” approach to build up the case for the paranormal is a misguided analogy. Tons of anecdotes and half-baked “research” cannot provide “cumulative evidence” of any kind. A better analogy is that of a pile of cards scattered around the floor and posing as a beautiful and coherent house of cards.

- The point I made by using the term GHOST STORIES was made exactly in the same way by Trevor Hamilton, in his rather sympathetic biography of Fred Myers, when he explained that some readers of Human Personality might be surprised to find in that book not only “evidence” for survival of the paranormal kind, but mostly rather mundane observations of psychological diversity.

- Irreducible Mind, by its very nature, claims that a few researchers knowledgeable of 19th century psychical research have it all right, while thousands of scientists around the world working from a materialist standpoint have it all wrong. ST “challenged” me to find evidence for this claim, and I provided a quote that said just that.

- ST claimed that I misunderstood the “transmission” hypothesis and went on to provide a summary as vague as what one finds in Irreducible Mind (or in James, for that matter). I then simply said that I have the same understanding of the idea that he has, only that I find the hypothesis useless and laughable.

- The “transmission” hypothesis, and Irreducible Mind, can only start to make some sense if one takes at face value the existence of the paranormal (or “psi”). But Irreducible Mind seems to pretend that the paranormal is not central to its argument, but merely adds value to, or reinforces the legitimacy of, the whole enterprise. I say that the paranormal, not medical wonders and quantum physics, is absolutely necessary for the “transmission” hypothesis. If there is no paranormal, then the “transmission” hypothesis becomes entirely useless. Now, the existence of the paranormal has not been established at all, whereas materialistic science has been making progress non stop in a much shorter amount of time. Therefore the “transmission” hypothesis is empty, and the appendix on evidence from parapsychology serves a rhetorical function to remind the reader that even if everything in Irreducible Mind can be explained in materialistic ways, there still exist other stuff that cannot be explained in these ways but that one has to take at face value. (I should add here that even if anything paranormal could be scientifically demonstrated, this would still not warrant the adoption of the “transmission” theory among scientists, but this is yet another story).

- Blaming academia’s “fear of psi” and dogmatic materialism for the widespread neglect of psychical research and parapsychology in modern science is akin to a conspiracy theory.

- Remote Viewing and Vedic astrology are off-topic, because they are not addressed, or even mentioned, in Irreducible Mind.

- The argument that NDEs cannot be exclusively brain-based because they are too complex mental functions to be sustained by a dysfunctional brain begs the question. We do not know the minimal brain correlates necessary to uphold NDEs or consciousness, we do not know when NDEs happen exactly, and we do not know how really complex these mental states actually are. What is more, a dysfunctional brain still seems better than a nonfunctional brain, or at least there is no valid reason to imply that no brain activity is a better explanation for NDEs than bad brain activity.

- We still don’t know what scientists should do if there was a sudden requirement in mainstream science to accept the “transmission” hypothesis as true.

Ok, let’s turn now to what ST has decided to address in his latest (and last?) reply. Remember, ST is now mostly saying that I’m simply too stupid to understand his arguments. Let’s see what he says:

I challenge Dieguez to provide evidence of me claiming that "this particular theory is a logical conclusion of the available data". This is pure fiction.

I like challenges, but this is not one. I only have to quote him: “My argument is that the authors are not simply "assuming" their position, but (correctly or incorrectly) concluding (after the examination of the evidence for some anomalous phenomena) that the current neuroscientific paradigm is wrong”

It is true that he didn’t use the word “logical”, which allows him to obfuscate the issue by pretending that each and every use of this word has to derive from an extremely careful application of its philosophical or mathematical use. The problem is that I was merely talking here about the fact that any indeterminate and maximalist theory trying to account for “all the facts” is unwarranted as long as some of the “facts” are not really “facts” and that more parsimonious approaches are good enough to account for the facts that are facts. If one remains focused on the discussion at hand, no confusion is possible.

But because ST is so used to interact with promoters of woo-woo, it is inevitable that confusions will abound in a discussion with someone who simply uses plain language to explain why he disagrees with his delusions. The only explanation for that, of course, would be that such individual is ignorant, stupid or fearful. For example:

Dieguez's supreme ignorance of contemporary epistemology commits him to misread and misunderstand other people arguments, and reply to them with crude straw man.

As a clinician, I’ve had some experience of really unstable people entertaining the delusion that they are experts in philosophy, logic, politics and quantum physics. So I’m not really surprised that ST will resort to such fantastic displays of self-aggrandizement. The only thing I can say, for his own good, is that he’s not impressing anyone. Talking a lot about epistemology, logic, fallacies and so forth is clearly not his territory. Rather, his territory is a place where he can interview crackpots and maintain his grandiose delusion that somehow his superior mind will live forever in some kind of heaven. Patronizing snippets about “epistemology” or whatever are very often, in any conversation, off-target. Some persons should certainly not go there, unless they really want to look crazy.

Moreover, if I had a blog where I posted a sympathetic interview of Denyse O’Leary, I would also refrain from acting surprised when other people allude to the similarity of my arguments to arguments from the creationist gang. Now, if ST wants to distance himself from this political movement of dangerous crackpots, he should clearly say so. If not, then he’s a dangerous crackpot too.

After that, ST accepts that not everything discussed in Irreducible Mind are facts:

I'm not saying so silly thing as "everything that is described in IM are facts"

I fully agree. But then, what are facts, and what are not facts in Irreducible Mind? Seriously, what kind of over-encompassing theory should we expect from a book that purports to make a cumulative case with a wide assortment of facts, some of which turn out not to be “facts” after all? That was my point exactly, but ST apparently doesn’t mind walking in circles for a bit.

Then ST takes issue with a rather uncontroversial claim. I said that nothing in the universe is completely explained. His response is that his cell-phone and his pen are indeed completely explained. Let’s say this is correct, for the sake of ridicule I just love to grant some of ST’s points, and see what happens. So, in fact, pens have been completely explained in terms of physical laws. Science knows everything about pens. Everything. There once was an Institute of Pen Mechanics, but as soon as the scientists working there figured out the very last mysteries of this noble object, they decided to close down and have a beer. Note that ST seems to think that some objects of daily life are completely understood “in terms of known physical laws”. The ironic thing is that he is the one who needs non-physical laws to sustain his belief in the paranormal and his delusion of immortality. I don’t, and yet I don’t even claim that we know all physical laws in the first place. Go figure.

Then I asked a simple question: have ESP and survival been established in the same way that most findings from neuroscience have been established? Here is his response:

I'll reply to that with the words of skeptic Richard Wiseman: "I agree that by the standards of any other area of science that remote viewing is proven"

Ok, now I’m cornered. Richard Wiseman was quoted as saying that in an interview? The Richard Wiseman? But...but... what should I do now? With Michael Shermer accepting Vedic astrology, and now Wiseman remote viewing, I feel completely disoriented. Nevertheless, this does not, again, answer my question of why there is no mention at all of remote viewing in Irreducible Mind.

In any case, useless arguments from authority and name-dropping apart, my problem here seems to be that I don’t understand how science work:

Dieguez conflates interpreting the data in terms of non-materialistic hypothesis with "jumping to the conclusion of the soul of gaps". He doesn't understand that, for logical reasons, theories cannot follow logically from the data. Theories have to be constructed to account for the data and different theories could be compatible with the same data (and this is why, heuristical and methodological rules, like Occam Razor, simplicity, etc. have to be used to choose between competing theories that explain the same facts).

Dieguez needs to study a little bit more the logic of the scientific method. Maybe he'll learn something of this in his Ph.D studies.

It is true that the authors of Irreducible Mind don’t actually say that their approach is based on the “soul-of-the-gaps” argument. I’m the one saying this. I know that they would disagree with that assessment, just as thousands of lightweights like ST also would. But I’ve read the book, and it’s plain to me that resorting to (i) the “explanatory gap”, (ii) the incompleteness of current neuroscience and consciousness research (or more simply the fact that neuroscience is an ongoing science, not a finished set of principles and data), and (iii) GHOST STORIES, in order to vindicate the “transmission” hypothesis as set forth by an obscure poet of the 19th century, merely amounts to a “soul-of-the-gaps” argument. Occam’s razor is indeed welcome in this discussion, and once all this nonsense is carefully shaven, you get materialism. Can I haz my PhD now?

In the following, instead of addressing the many points that I have listed above, ST thinks that he can assert his superiority merely by finding “contradictions” in what I wrote. To do so, he quotes me as saying that one problem might be that we call parapsychology “controversial”, when this word should better be restricted to stuff that actually are controversial in scientific discussions (as opposed to stuff that are not “controversial”, but simply wrong, stupid, etc.). But, lo and behold! before I said that, I actually used the word “controversial” to refer to parapsychology! And even so, I was merely quoting from the authors of Irreducible Mind themselves! So yeah, ST totally pwned me. Except that I explicitly said that perhaps it is a mistake to call parapsychology also controversial. You see, correcting yourself becomes contradicting yourself when you’re read by experts in philosophy of science and epistemology, such as ST. And later, he will again triumphantly make the same point, because I actually re-used the word “controversy” in an analogy to creationism. Never mind that I used scare quotes precisely to make the point.

You see, scare quotes are a nice typographic device that allow one to say something while still... oh forget it. It’s actually my fault, really. I keep neglecting the fact that ST is totally impervious to the slightest use of irony. He’s a very rigid person, focuses a lot on irrelevant details and entertains delusions of being “subversive” and extremely smart. I thing there should be a diagnosis for that, before we can even dream of finding a cure.

So the last thing that ST cares to address in his tepid “reply” is my claim that he misunderstands what an argument from ignorance is. Yes ST, this one is tricky. I confess that my lack of intellectual powers prevent me from distinguishing an appeal to ignorance from an argument from ignorance. Or an argument from personal incredulity, from an argument from personal conviction. These are all subtleties that a philosopher with a PhD could surely disentangle with ease, even after a dozen beers. But not me. Surely ST’s supreme smart-assness could help here. But what was my point again? Oh yeah: “I can’t understand how a brain can produce a superb thing like the human mind, therefore the soul”. Call that what you want, I’ll go with argument from ignorance.

Let’s turn now to ST’s “conclusion” (quick summary: Dieguez is dumb):

After reading all of these fallacies, contraditions, abuses of logic, conceptual confusions, misrepresentations and atheistic obsessions with "creationists", I feel it's a waste of time to keep arguing this kind of things with Dieguez ... [he’s] simply intellectually unable and unprepared to discuss, on rational, honest, objective and factual terms, these questions. As shown above, he even can't understand the most simple and basic arguments, nor can draw fine conceptual distinctions, nor can think consistently. I have better things to do.

True, ST has much better things to do. Why should he waste his time with me, instead of, for instance, hanging around James Webster? This way, he could benefit from his expertise on the Scole “experiments”, which he thinks are genuine. It would be cool if he could share with a wider audience his experience of dancing lights and disembodied voices. Or why not interview Denyse O’Leary again, and ask her why god created the corpus callosum? That would be interesting.

Right, I’m done with this guy now. It was a little bit of an overkill, I know, but I had great fun. Now, I hope ST will excuse me, but I have experiments to run.

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